Beyond the List of “Shoulds”: Receiving God’s Invitation

“Many times today I will cross over a threshold.
I hope I will catch a few of those times.
I need to remember that my life is, in fact,
a continuous series of thresholds:
from one moment to the next,
from one thought to the next,
from one action to the next.
Help me appreciate how awesome this is.
How many are the chances to be really alive …
to be aware of the enormous dimension we live within.”
– Gunilla Norris

Sarah Forti and Aryn Davis, recent graduates of YALLI (Young Adult Life & Leadership Initiative), discuss the challenges and gifts of an active prayer life amidst the stresses of their lives as they cross the threshold into parenthood, going back into the workplace and living into their call as contemplative leaders. Sarah and Aryn will co-lead Shalem’s upcoming Crossing the Threshold: Contemplative Foundations for Emerging Leaders program.

Aryn: We officially finished the YALLI fellowship program a few weeks ago. Those two years flew by! What would you say that YALLI taught you?

Sarah: Shalem’s YALLI program taught me that approaching spiritual practices as a list of expectations or “shoulds” kept them just out of reach for me. As a full-time mom, part-time graduate student, and full-time church staff person, I find it easy to be swallowed up and overwhelmed by my expectations for myself. Yesterday, I felt guilty for asking my husband to hold the baby so that I could take a shower for the first time in three days. The list of things that I should be doing seems to have no limit, and that list also extends into my faith.

These “shoulds” were an ideal that was disconnected from my actual relationship with God, and projecting those assumptions onto God stopped me from asking the simple and world-changing question, “God, what are you inviting?” I had been projecting what I imagined Christian practices should look like, instead of receiving God’s life-giving invitations to particular practices. When I can come back to prayer as invitation, I experience a level of joy, authenticity and creativity that I had not felt for a long time.

Aryn: I know what you mean, Sarah. But unfortunately, I learned this the hard way! My “shoulds” were my daily contemplative practices. While working from home in 2020, I created space for daily contemplative practices. I found an anchor in “listening” to the tone of each of the monastic hours throughout the day. Each morning, I started a reading practice followed by centering prayer for 20 minutes. I started taking spiritual walks every afternoon and spending time in nature, which quickly became one of my teachers. Stretching, journaling, and body prayers became part of my weekly practices in the mornings, coupled with intention-setting before bed at night.

And one day, they suddenly just imploded!

Last August, when the school that I serve in reopened for the first time in a year and a half, my uncle almost died and had to undergo open heart surgery, and my brother was preparing to have his second surgery after being diagnosed with thyroid cancer. (Likely) as a result of so much happening in one month, my immune system became overactive causing inflammation across most of my body.

In the midst of these difficulties, my transition back to school took center stage as I welcomed back 735 middle and high school students, along with my team of 7 mental health practitioners, into the place that they had unexpectedly left on March 13, 2020.

Although I knew it would be tricky, I sought to make space, after returning to work, for all the contemplative practices that had grounded me during the pandemic. “You’ve got this, A!” I told myself in my mighty contemplative warrior voice!

Now this is where the record scratches and skips. Or better yet, this is where all my practices implode, catch on fire, and crumble to the ground!

Instead of focusing on what God was inviting me to, I was focusing on what I wanted to be invited to. And it wasn’t working. This form of control is the enemy of the contemplative life. It’s what the brain craves. All of this striving and “should-ing” taught me how little was actually within my control, and that as a contemplative, I would have to be more flexible.

For six weeks straight, I didn’t realize that I was being invited to practice presence–that’s it. THAT was the practice! THAT was my call and charge during the transition period.

Sarah: That’s right! One of my prayer practices now is observing prayerful silence while nursing the baby. This particular time of stillness is a gift, and it’s an opportunity to simply be present to myself, to my son, and to God.

I also have a practice of grounding myself in the presence of God, which I imagine to be like a shining mist that rises up from the ground as a spiritual plane.

When I am writing a seminary paper, or planning a church event, or when baby food is flying across the table, I take a moment to visualize this spiritual “ground” of God’s presence as something that sets me free. I am invited to find my identity, my purpose, and my strength in this spiritual grounding, rather than being rooted in my own expectations of how I am performing in my life. After years of apologizing for being an introvert, YALLI also helped me to name myself as a contemplative leader by owning the authentic ways of being that God invites in my life: deep listening, co-creation, prayer, and other contemplative practices. By listening to the abundance of God’s invitations, I have learned to ground my life and leadership in God’s loving presence.

Aryn: Yes, that’s been a lesson for me too. Contemplative leadership requires nothing of us, but to be.

…Be aware of God’s presence in the fast-moving pace of our lives.
…Be open to the free-flow of grace available in every moment.
…Be alive to where God exists in the messiness that is in front of us.

Sarah: Exactly! When did the presence of God become this shining, fluid thing? When I decide to trust, rather than trying to be in control. It all comes back to “God, what are you inviting?”


Aryn K. Davis
Aryn is an educator and mental health professional in DC schools. Her passion is bringing others to a place of deeper awareness and full presence in heart, body, and mind, to ultimately experience freedom. Aryn is a graduate of Shalem’s Young Adult Life and Leadership program (now known as Crossing the Threshold), and she is a facilitator in Shalem’s Group Spiritual Direction Facilitator Training program. Prior to serving as a Shalem leader, Aryn worked in education as a teacher, a reading specialist, and currently is working as a counselor and the Director of Mental Health in a public charter school. She holds a B.A. from Howard University, a Master’s degree in Education from George Mason University, and a Master’s degree in Counseling and Human Development from George Washington University. Aryn is the Co-Director of Crossing the Threshold: Supporting Contemplative Foundations for Emerging Leaders.

Sarah Forti
Sarah Forti, Co-Director of Crossing the Threshold: Supporting Contemplative Foundations for Emerging Leaders, is a graduate of the YALLI program and the Group Spiritual Direction workshop. She is a graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University, has an MDiv from George Fox Evangelical Seminary, and is working towards an M.A. at Wesley Theological Seminary. She is a Director of Christian Education in the United Methodist Church, and a staff person in Shalem’s Group Spiritual Direction workshops.

December 12, 2021 by Shalem Institute
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